Top of the East playing the best team in MLS (points and missing DPs not withstanding). We may have lost three in a row. We may be down. We may not be allowed to Erik Tacos Friberg against them or a 4th DP/Core player but we have their number. Sounders are 4-1-1 against DC over the last six matches, including a 1-nil win at the cavern that is RFK Stadium. DC has taken 35 points from 20 matches. They average 1.75 a match but they do not dominate matches. There is truly an element of randomness with this team and this report is an attempt to solve that.
What are they great at? Nothing but they are good at enough things to be dangerous.
The Sounders aren't bad at defending set pieces especially with Marshall, Evans, and Rose on the field who are all great ball winners. Zach Scott will be in with Brad Evans away for Gold Cup duty and in case you have not seen him play, he's pretty good in the air too. The Sounders are one of the least fouling clubs in MLS this year, but when they foul they typically give one up in good position for a free kick.
DC United has nine goals from set pieces and another two from PKs versus they have a total of 12 from open play (two are specified as counterattacks). So we know DC knows how to take PKs. The list of DC kick takers is exhaustive with Taylor Kemp, Chris Rolfe, Fabian Espindola, Perry Kitchen, Sean Franklin, Luis Silva, among others all able to hit a dangerous ball into the box. Pair this with Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Kofi Opare's ability to win headers and you see why they are dangerous. No one on this side has more than one goal off a set piece and of the nine only one featured an assist (Taylor Kemp).
|Direct Shots||About half of those takers will send a shot on goal about 75% more of the time than they send in a cross. Only Kemp is a traditional crosser with free kicks. Look for shots from anything within 35 yards as opposed to the typical cross you see with most teams (like Pappa and Mears).|
|Rebounds||Because DC shoots, a lot, the free kick goals are often scored with rebounds as well. The first ball is deflected or saved by a GK but with a massive scramble in the box, DC pokes it home.|
Sounders will have two problems with this, Stefan Frei and clearances. Frei has been an amazing goalie this year and leads the league in saves and clean sheets. He has to control his box and catch the ball. He has a tendency on free kicks to punch but because DC has shooters ready at the top of the box and has more than most teams do, as well as scrappy players in the box, it creates more havoc then it typically does. DC lives for keepers that punch, if Frei can minimize that then we can neutralize a core goal scoring route for United.
Clearances are the other key here. The Sounders, eye test here, fail at clearing. A lot. While it only takes one bad clearance to make the backline look bad, it only takes one to be down a goal. If we are unable to clear free kicks, whether through strong headers or just booting it out, it multiples the risk. Without Evans it will be a concern, while Scott wins headers, Evans is better at directing his headers.
This is starting to be a regular strategy for MLS sides and on the road except DC to bunker and counter. The counter is good for two things, stretching a defense to get a goal or force a free kick. DC's strikers are not the fastest with Fabian Espindola, who is a slower poor man's Obafemi Martins (his creativity on the ball this year is in top form). Conor Doyle, Chris Rofle, Luis Silva, and Jairo Arrieta have all started up top with Espindola in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. They are not going to out run our full backs trying to go down the wing and if they go down the pike, Michael Azira, Osvaldo Alonso, Chad Marshall, and Zach Scott (whatever combination is out there) have enough pace and tactical awareness to shut it down.
Teams like San Jose with fast wingers have attacked the Sounders with the counter and done quite well because the fullbacks can't collapse in support, stretching the defense. DC uses Fabian Espindola's ability to create with the ball at his feet to free up players in the counter. The good news is, slower teams have not been effective at countering against the Sounders this season. If DC tries it this way, it'll take some very strong play from Espindola to give the counter any chance.
Technically DC only has two goals from the counter but statistics for counter goals are tracked pretty poorly. They are threatening and this is they preferred mode of attack. They'll look to draw a foul before they shoot or cross because they are pesky buggers.
Up the Middle-
DC took a page from Sigi Schmid and starts central players out wise. Nick DeLeon is a winger who can play on either side but that is it. Chris Rolfe, Chris Pontius, Davy Arnaud, and Michael Farfan (sounds like the striker's list) all have lined up at the other wing position. There is no rhyme or reason to it. But none of these guys can burn down a sideline and all typically line up out left and while Tyrone Mears is not the fastest, he knows how to defend and will not let whoever lineups at LM beat him.
The central players cut inside a lot. When Rolfe plays wide, it is like Pappa, he stays wide when he has to but always wants to cut inside to do his work. Add in Espindola's desire to play two-touch passing and get creative with the ball from about 30 yards out and the ball never leaves the center third. While they technically attack via the wings equally (each third is a third of the time) it is misleading. About 50% of the touches for DC is in the middle third of the park, which would not be alarming if they were a possession team but they are not. They keep the ball in the middle third, with Espindola, Perry Kitchen, and Pontius then play it out to a wing before going into the box. The action for DC happens in the center of the park right where Alonso should be. This is atypical from the Sounders previous games, San Jose, Philadelphia, and Portland all played the ball out wide as soon as they hit midfield and then ran to the touchline before cutting inside, DC will play it in the middle till the last second before cutting outside. From there they push it back inside, shooting 70% of their shots from the middle of the field.
DC is good at coming back. They've had to do it a lot this season and they are getting good at it. This is a side that when they are losing, don't seem to notice. They just go through their paces and find a goal, a sign of a good strong side. In five of their 10 wins, DC has gone down a goal in the first 30 minutes before coming back to win it. They've done it against good sides like Vancouver and sides that barely exist like Chicago. Of those only the Vancouver match was on the road and the 'Caps picked up a red in that one.
On the road they are a lot weaker. Of their 23 goals for, only five have come on the road. They're GD overall is a +6 but on the road, -2. Their road record is 3-2-4 for 11 points, including losses at Philadelphia, Portland, Red Bulls, and Orlando. They drew a 9-man Revolution squad in a true show of what not to do when playing a side down two players. More than half of their road goals are off free kicks. It is safe to say, they are a shell of themselves on the road.
Who to Watch-
1. Fabian Espindola- You are probably tired of hearing his name and I am tired of almost misspelling it, a lot. Turns out, he runs the office. He is playing quite differently than when he played in Salt Lake. At RSL, he was asked to be a one of two strikers that Javier Morales could find and let them shoot. He did not have to create for himself but in DC, he is the guy and he seems to like that better and has lead to a pretty good run of form.
2. Bill Hamid- Either he'll win the US the World Cup as keeper or will never make the team. He is good but if he decides he does not need to try, it shows. Hamid ranks 2nd in total saves this season and while Dan Kennedy for a while showed that being the saves leader is pointless, it is not this year. The top two keepers are on two of the top three teams (Frei and Hamid). Hamid keeps them in games and helps them win one's they had no business winning. The hydra could take him with ease but hydra-lite will have a bit of rough time beating him.
3. Chris Rolfe- Kind of a chalk pick to take him but he is the leading goal scorer. He's got six goals and another three assists to go with it. He can win headers in the box and shoot from outside the PK. He is the resident PK taker, with two of the six coming form the spot. He's done it from every where this year and is the most dangerous man in front of goal. It drops off significantly as the rest of the team does, with only one goal on a shot from outside of the 18 on the road but that is not a reason to give him time and space tonight. If there is not a player glued to his side, he'll have a go.
A handful of guys for DC are still nursing injuries with Sean Franklin and Chris Pontius being held out in the last match and regular sub Michael Farfan also not playing last week. DC did not have an Open Cup midweek but did play Wednesday and Saturday last week. They have no suspensions or Gold Cup call-ups because they're cruel. Or Klinsi is cruel, your choice.
It'll likely be a hybrid 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2 with Espindola and Arrieta up top. They have not both been healthy and/or eligible together for most of the season but with them both able to go tomorrow, expect them to match up together. The rest of the lineup is standard for them unless injuries come up. If Sean Franklin can go, he'll start instead of Chris Korb. The chance they slide Birnbaum to RB and start Opare and Boswell are slim with Korb rested but it is something they've done. Chris Pontius and Luis Silva will be the attackers they turn to when needing a late goal.